The ecosystems ecologist, a wonderer at heart

09/08/15 – NAHANT, MA. – Jennifer Bowen, Associate professor in the Department of Marine and Environmental Sciences, poses for a portrait at the Marine Science Center campus in Nahant, Massachusetts on Sept. 8, 2016. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Ecosystems ecologist Jennifer Bowen studies the interconnectedness between humans and some of the world’s tiniest inhabitants—microbes—nestled in marine environments. She focuses on how human activity alters these microbial communities’ structure and function while using cutting-edge microbiology tools to examine how these communities build resilience and help show humans how to do the same in the face of disturbance.

Bowen, who joined Northeastern’s faculty this fall from the University of Massachusetts-Boston, has concentrated much of her recent research on salt marshes and the key role they play in reducing the effects of urbanization and climate change. Not only do salt marshes offer a nursery ground for many commercially important fish and provide a physical barrier between land and sea against storms, she says, but they also gobble up carbon dioxide and remove nitrogen pollution to keep it out of the ocean.

“It turns out that salt marshes have higher carbon sequestration rates than tropical rainforests because they build a huge amount of biomass,” says Bowen, associate professor in the Department of Marine and Environmental Sciences and who is part of the Urban Coastal Sustainability Initiative in the College of Science. “Salt marshes do an amazing job allowing a huge diversity of microbes to survive there, and microbes living in salt marsh sediments provide a host of ecosystem services.”

For more than a decade, she and her team have studied these fascinating metabolic processes and much more by examining microbes in salt marsh sediments in Plum Island Sound in Massachusetts. In a new paper published Monday in the journal Nature Communications, Bowen and her colleagues present work in which they sought to discover what happens to microbes living in salt marshes if specific nutrients were added to the environment—essentially emulating possible scenarios associated with urbanization and climate change.

They found that adding nutrients such as nitrogen didn’t change the types of bacteria present in the salt marsh, but over time, as conditions changed, a large proportion of the microbial group became dormant. The microbes essentially go into hibernation and return when the environmental conditions are suitable—but during this time they are not contributing to the critical ecosystem services that make salt marshes so important in protecting coastal waters.

Bowen sees her new home at Northeastern—specifically, the Marine Science Center in Nahant, Massachusetts—as the perfect place to advance her research and teaching and form new collaborations with faculty across the university. In fact, before she arrived at Northeastern she had already begun collaborating with Northeastern professors Randall Hughes and Katie Lotterhos on a salt marsh restoration project in Rhode Island that involves spreading a thin layer of quarry soil over the marsh to help it keep up with rising sea levels. She also notes that the Rumney Marsh Reservation in Saugus, located only a few miles from the Marine Science Center, is an excellent salt marsh system where students can gain hands-on learning.

Bowen holds a doctorate in biology from Boston University and a bachelor’s degree in biology from Colby College. She grew up on her family’s small dairy farm in Penobscot, Maine, which she said helped cultivate her sense of creativity and wonder. She explains that learning about how to problem-solve and optimize conditions on the farm—everything from raising animals to fixing a broken tractor—“lends itself to a life of inquiry.”

It was later, as an undergraduate at Colby, when she took an ecology course, that she discovered her career calling. As she puts it, “scientists are wonderers at heart.”